Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Destroy All Monsters by Jeff Jackson. (FSG Originals)
Here’s why I’m annoyed with Jeff Jackson …
In high school, I was in a band, so we spent our fair share of time in the local music scene. I got a good feel for the atmosphere and the kinds of people you’d bump into at shows. Music was life for a lot of these people and most of them could talk about it for hours. It’s a fun and strange microcosm in many towns.
When I started to move away from music and focus more on writing, I heard the same advice over and over: write what you know. Every time I tried (or still try) to write about music—especially rock music—and the local scene, it comes off corny. I can never get the tone right and it’s because writing within this subject matter takes a delicate hand, navigating a fine balance between authentic and accessible.
In Destroy All Monsters, Jeff Jackson makes it look so fucking easy. I want to sit him down and ask one simple question: How?
Destroy All Monsters is a double book. You can read Side A, “My Dark Ages,” and then literally flip the book over and read Side B, “Kill City.” They don’t have to be read in that order, in the same way listening to a vinyl record can be flipped and switched. Though, when you choose to mix it up, the emotional resonance and impact will alter how you read the book.
There are echoes between the two stories as they explore the way things could have been had certain details been different. Destroy All Monsters is like Rashomon meets the underground punk scene. Shaun wants to prove to his town’s dying scene that bands can still produce quality music that will make people care. While he is trying to prove himself to his peers, a nationwide epidemic starts. Small bands in different local scenes are being targeted for mass violence, whether it’s murder by guns, bombs, or knives, it doesn’t seem safe to take the stage. Shaun’s band has to make the choice whether they’re going to follow through on their concert or cancel it out of fear, and his friends in the town are left to deal with the aftermath.
Destroy All Monsters is like Rashomon meets the underground punk scene.
The conversations the characters have about how music has lost its magic are the same as the ones I’ve had—or really anyone who has music as a cornerstone of their life—but, because of the circumstances during which these discussions are taking place, Jackson is able to transcend the topic. It’s not a group of surly teens or twenty-somethings reminiscing about how good the scene used to be or how music was pure before life got in the way. There is a tangible danger involved in the pursuit of music because of the epidemic revolving around these characters’ lives and we’re forced to look at these conversations from a different angle. We see a new perspective, giving these tired and old debates a fresh take.
There are moments and images that parallel from Side A to Side B, creating a nice echo of something near-forgotten. Small moments and details that I passed over while reading “My Dark Ages” took on a weight of importance when they became focal points in “Kill City.” It proved that Jackson wasn’t just throwing in little extra details to flesh out the world, but he was getting at something larger. This book is larger than itself and quite possibly the most ambitious work Jackson has attempted, and goddamn if he doesn’t pull it off. I found myself thinking hard about Side A, trying to unlock the mysteries he has sewn into this story.
I’m not going to pretend like I understand all the symbolism involved in Destroy All Monsters, because the way Jackson presents it to us is a maze. We are feeling our way through this labyrinth in an attempt to learn the greater meaning behind Xenie and Shaun’s lives and their impact on the world. But, this isn’t a confusing book. This is a book that can be read on the surface and highly enjoyed.
The vignettes about songbirds could be added flourishes for you, but it can also be so much more. You can chop it up and read all those vignettes back to back in an attempt to learn more, or you can read Side B first, flipping the residual emotional impact between the two stories. Or you can find your own way to read Destroy All Monsters, because, like a brilliant record, you can start on track five and find new meaning compared to starting the album from the beginning.
Jackson has pumped enough into this book that you can dig into the story simmering beneath the surface and find yourself blossoming theories and debate about what it all means.
[Destroy All Monsters releases on Tuesday, October 16, 2018.]